When deciding what to call my blog I went through all sorts of ideas and also looked at what other mature-age student bloggers had came up with. I have to give titles to my history essays for uni which always makes me feel really silly, I feel like I’m being really pretentious, that what I have written is important enough that it deserves a title. I felt exactly the same when thinking of names for my blog though this felt worse because it had to be representative of me and not a work that I produced. In the end it actually didn’t take me very long and I hope it doesn’t sound pretentious but to me it sums up where I am in my adult life so far and also encapsulates where I hope to be heading in the medium to long term future. Warning – this is a very long blog but will give you some idea of my journey so far.
The ‘mature age’ part is fairly self-explanatory: I am a mature age history student, though I still don’t feel mature! The term ‘renaissance’ is more complex and I use it to convey the sense of re-birth that I have felt over the last few years after enduring several years of disappointment with my health.
Early Adult Years
In my early adult years I felt quite lost and had no idea which direction to take my life and at that point in my life no one was really guiding me or talking to me much about I wanted to do with my life and I certainly wasn’t asking questions or asking for guidance. I had been quite self-sufficient mentally and emotionally most of my life. There was part of me that didn’t feel worthy of pursuing my goals and that held me back at times and being nervous and shy didn’t help. So in the end I became a personal assistant/secretary for several years which I saw as a temporary measure while I did some travelling and to just let time pass in the hope that the right path for me would just present itself one day.
While letting time pass I moved here to Sydney and met my future husband the very first day here! In my early 20s I was really not looking to settle down but within 20 months of moving here I was married and thinking “now what?”. As I saw it my private life was now sorted out but what to do about myself, what path did I want for myself to share with my Dearest Hubby (DH). I was seriously considering studying at uni but still couldn’t narrow down what to study. However, thoughts of study were soon put on the backburner as within a few months of our wedding DH and I realised something wasn’t right with my health. I was extremely tired all the time, I found it difficult to walk the 5 minute walk to the train station, I was getting sick frequently and experiencing many dizzy spells and blackouts. I went to see my GP who ran some blood tests and I expected to be told “yes you’re just anaemic again”. However, when I went back to get the results she said “Well, the good news is you don’t have Leukaemia”, my jaw then dropped to the floor – I had no idea she was searching for something that serious, “but the bad news is you have a condition called Pancytopenia and I don’t know why so I’m sending you to a Haematologist who will investigate this. It’s probably best you don’t work full-time if that is possible, I’d suggest only 2 or 3 days a week, and get as much rest as you need”. DH had already suggested a couple of months earlier that maybe I should work part-time until I felt stronger, and I was in a job that I didn’t care that much for at the time. So for the next 18 months my new Haematologist ran a gamut of tests concluding with a bone marrow biopsy and he still couldn’t find what was causing my Pancytopenia. At that time he suspected that it was an over-active spleen but in the 11 years since he now feels that the most likely explanation is my blood cells are being killed off by auto-immune antibodies. He too strongly suggested that I only do part-time work that was not too taxing – “probably best not to pursue a career” or words to that effect is what I remember him saying to me. Over the last 11 years I have been a living pin cushion with all the blood tests I’ve had (frequently taking 11 vials of blood at a time) plus the biopsy and last year a CT Scan. Recently my Haematologist told me “you’re a medical mystery”, well that makes me feel just great! Apparently my blood count should be worse than it is to account for the frequency of my falling ill (usually bronchitis) so he is sending me off to see yet another specialist, a lung specialist to be exact, to see if I have something nasty lurking in my lungs. So no doubt more tests to come.
So what is Pancytopenia?
Briefly, it is a condition where there are an insufficient number of the three major blood cell types: red cells, white cells and platelets. From all the testing that has been done on my body it appears that my bone marrow is making enough good blood but the blood cells are disappearing somewhere in my body and the most likely explanation in my case is an auto-immune disease. There are various other causes of Pancytopenia – if you Google it you’ll find plenty of articles on patients who acquire it while being treated for cancer or HIV but they don’t apply to me. So what are the usual symptoms – fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, dizziness, pallor, heavy menstrual periods, nose bleeds (I’ve never had one) and gum bleeds, recurrent infections (mainly bacterial in my case as I have a low neutraphil count), frequent bruising (doesn’t help that I’m clumsy) and possible hemorrhaging (only a concern for me if approaching labour/birth or if I need to have an operation).
So what now?
So here I was at age 25. I was grateful to have some answers as to why I was feeling as bad as I was but what was I to do with myself? I found I needed many years to come to terms with the concept of me not having a career for myself. I always wanted to do something but now doctors were telling me to forget it, not enough energy to pursue one and I knew they were right….at that time. I needed a lot of time to pass to come to terms with what it means to have these limitations placed on me at such a young age. I’m sure most people expect to be fairly fit and healthy in their 20s: energy to burn, to pursue your dreams. I felt any possibility of me pursuing any goals I had was taken away. How was I going to live my life? What would I do with myself? There’s more to me than ‘wife’. I was working PA jobs that were okay but they never felt right for me. I felt so lost. With no hope of ever ‘recovering’, how do you live the life you want when you are so exhausted all the time and spend a considerable amount of time coughing up your lungs with recurrent bouts of bronchitis. Once the 18 months of regular tests and investigations was over my DH and I decided we’d try to start a family, at least I can do that I thought. My GP had warned me to only have 2 children and to space them very far apart “you won’t cope otherwise in your condition”. So I finally had a goal of falling pregnant and to become a full time mother. Yet again fate had other plans. Another 2 years later and no sign of a baby we were back in the doctors’ offices investigating why I wasn’t falling pregnant and to cut a long story short we’ve endured multiple IVF treatments with varying success. These days we are the proud parents of two wonderful children, a boy almost 6yrs and a girl 2yrs. But our infertility stories will be left for future blogs.
During the many years of investigating my Pancytopenia and trying to fall pregnant I basically just took care of myself whilst working part-time – working out what works well for my body and what doesn’t and working out what the warning signs are to tell me it’s time to rest. In my spare time I read, a few hours each day and I loved it, mainly history books, biographies and other non-fiction. For my physical health I saw a dietitian for over a year to help me put on weight (I have always been thin) and I started going to the gym regularly which proved to be one of the best things I’ve ever incorporated into my life. Building up some muscle over time (they are laughably small muscles but I hardly had a scrap of muscle on my narrow frame in the beginning), over the years I have gained some real strength compared to what I used to have but more importantly I have far more energy than I used to when I was at my weakest but it probably isn’t as much energy as the average person has. So I still have to pace myself and about 5 days per week I will have about 90mins of rest in bed when my daughter is having her daytime sleep. If I don’t have enough rest my body will tell me quite clearly through sharp pains in my bones, especially in my limbs and occasionally chest pain. The pain only disappears with rest, not painkillers. On top of that I’m usually managing dizzy spells or sometimes blackouts. The intensity of these vary over time depending on when I was last sick and how busy I’ve been. Some days I have no choice, I have to keep soldiering on and on those days I really feel like I’m caged inside my body and it can be hard holding back the tears when that happens.
Accepting and forgetting
By the time we get to our 30s or 40s we all have something to deal with whether it be your health or a difficult situation to manage. My Pancytopenia and dealing with infertility are some of mine (yes, I have more private issues to deal with too). I hide the symptoms as best I can – most people wouldn’t know. I don’t mind people knowing I just don’t feel like bringing it up all the time. I suppose I just want people to just be aware of what I deal with on a day to day basis, and if I say I’m struggling that day don’t say “oh you’ll get over it” or some throw-away line like that as it just annoys me and it shows how much you don’t get it. Just let me be. I don’t want special treatment (although if I suddenly lean on you when I’m blacking out please wait a minute or two til it passes, I’d rather not fall on the floor) I don’t have a terminal illness or something far worse than Pancytopenia but I don’t want people to assume I’ve as much energy as they do. If I manage my health well then people don’t notice that there’s anything wrong with me however that generally means that family and friends forget that I have health issues but that’s because I manage them well. It’s not as simple as popping a pill every day, it is something I have to manage and adjust my actions according to how I’m feeling every few hours.
I accepted long ago that this will be with me forever and mentally I have moved on now. Enough time has passed. I realised this a few weeks after my daughter was born. I burst into tears one night and said to my DH “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t be a full time stay at home mother, it’s too hard – I need something extra for myself.” It was during the weeks leading up to and after her birth that I realised what I wanted to do with myself. I was ready to start my study with a general aim of becoming an historian. I knew it would take me many years part-time but that didn’t bother me, I just wanted to be on the path and enjoy the journey. I have almost finished my second year of university studies and I’m averaging distinction grades and I couldn’t be happier with this part of my life. I love my study, it makes me feel happy and fulfilled and I feel I’m a better mother as I have more to give, in an emotional sense, to my children as I go to uni to fill my cup so to speak. It may not work for others but this is what works for me.
So when I use the term ‘renaissance’ for me it really does feel like a re-birth. Nothing was the same after my daughter was born: a switch was turned on and suddenly I understood who I was and what I had to do with my life. I felt like I was emerging from my dark ages where I was disconnected from people, lost in my own little world, not able to make sense of all I had learned from experience and learned from reading history books and other non-fiction that I loved. It was like someone turned the lights on and now I could see the context of my life and I could see which door I should exit the dark ages from in order to start my new journey, and the baggage of the past felt much lighter, so much easier to carry. I didn’t leave the past behind, I carried it with me and I still do but what I hadn’t realised was that all those years of feeling lost while letting time pass I had been exercising my emotional and spiritual muscles. I was now strong enough to carry the load that had once restrained and overwhelmed me. Life around me took on much more vivid colours and I felt an enthusiasm for life that I never known before. I still have my difficult days and moments just like anybody, especially with child rearing, but the satisfaction of being on the right path for me is immense.
The term renaissance also reflects my interest in Italian history from the medieval through to the early modern period but particularly the renaissance, and that’s where I hope I’ll be heading in the future.